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'No Man is an Island'

A 15th-Century perspective on the European balance of power.

The year 1453 was a turning point in more than one theatre of European affairs. In the south-east it witnessed the fall of Constantinople, and in the north-west the final expulsion of the English from France. Each was an act of greater symbolic than real significance, for each was foreshadowed long before it happened. For a hundred years or more the Byzantine Empire had survived only by consent of the Turks. Likewise for a couple of decades the English had survived in France only by dint of the internal divisions which prevented their opponents from coming together sooner than they did.

Yet old attitudes died hard. The English did not easily accept their fate: not, at least, those Englishmen who had lost their livelihood with the ending of the war. Their spokesman, William Worcester, who had once been the secretary of that irascible war veteran Sir John Fastolf, wrote a tract called The Boke of Noblesse in which he lamented the decline of martial arts in England and urged Henry VI to clothe himself 'in armoure of defence ayenst (his) ennemies' to recover the Duchy of Normandy. But the king who himself epitomised that decline was going to be the very last to reverse it, and Worcester had to wait until the next reign to find a monarch with an interest in reviving the aggressive designs of Henry V. The Yorkist Edward IV was indeed a king in the old mould. He spent several years constructing a great anti-French coalition, founded, as in Henry V's time, on alliances with Burgundy and Brittany. By 1475 he was ready to set off, and on the eve of his departure Worcester presented him with a revised edition of his Boke. But a combination of high hopes and past memories was insufficient to ensure that the expedition lived up to expectations. Charles of Burgundy reneged on his commitments, and Edward was left high and dry.

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